The OG Hawaiian-Brazilian rivalry

Jake Dean
Swellnet Dispatch

Last year’s men’s WSL Championship Tour – featuring the long-awaited threat of Julian Wilson and an unprecedented cast of world-beating Brazilians – blew minds. But was it just an intermission?

You could argue (with Gabriel Medina-like confidence) that John John Florence’s bung knee robbed us of the chance to see the best two surfers of their generation vying for the crown. The rivalry is already one of surfing’s greatest, and if Florence’s knee (and focus) holds up, we’ll surely see them collecting plenty more silverware to come.

But years before they were even born, an eerily similar blood feud was in full swing, with mild-mannered style king Mike Stewart and fearless competitive beast Guilherme Tamega winning a ridiculous 15 out of 20 world bodyboarding championships between 1983 and 2002.

(Photo Elliot Morris)

On the eve of the Quiksilver Pro, I contacted the pair to pick the scab of their rivalry in light of two modern-day greats treading their footsteps.

“Mike has always been my inspiration… in terms of trying to beat him,” says GT, Brazil’s six-time world champ, over the phone. “I grew up and came to the scene with one goal in mind – take down the king.”

The Brazilian burst on to the world stage in 1991 when, aged 18, he finished fourth in the annual Pipeline contest – then the sole leg for crowning the world champ. Hawaii’s Mike Stewart, who’d already attained godlike status, won world title #7 that year, but the hard-charging Brazilian kid caused a stir, not unlike Medina’s heroics when, at 17, he won two WCT events in half a season.

“They saw me and went, who is this guy?” GT says. “I was like, I’m here to stay and I’m here to do some damage. You better watch out.”

Mike, who emailed his responses from the Big Island, is more restrained. “As he matured, things heated up,” Mike says. “I guess you could say it got pretty intense.”

Mike added two more world titles to his trophy cabinet (he finished with nine), but GT snapped at his heels, coming third in 1992 and second in 1993 before winning the sport’s inaugural GOB World Tour in 1994.

“I knew things were gonna get ugly from that point,” GT says. “But I liked the challenge.”

GT’s laser-like focus brings to mind the staunch paddling and cold eyes of the reigning surfing world champ, and GT sees it in Medina too. “He’s a fighter,” GT says. “You can see blood in his eyes, angry, and that’s a good thing. You need that. We [Brazilians] don’t take things for granted because we don’t get things easy. We have to work really hard and we fight towards our goal and what we want in life. It’s something I don’t see often from other countries, especially first world countries”

Mike, however, had his fair share of trials too, and there are parallels with Florence’s upbringing. “Growing up as a blond haole kid in Hawaii without a father to help me navigate, I often got bullied and punked in public,” Mike explains. “So, I developed to be a fairly pugnacious character. Whenever I got cornered in a comp, I fought back hard.”

At the height of their rivalry they barely spoke, which evokes the strained interactions you occasionally see between Florence and Medina on webcasts. But it was a different era than today’s stage-managed personas. In one magazine interview before GT won his maiden title, the Brazilian reminded readers that “Mike Stewart is not God” and later, “he’s getting scared… he’s not comfortable anymore.” Bring back the barbs, I say.

“Every time we had a heat, it was fire,” GT laughs today. “And he knows that! He’s always gonna be the guy that tries to make things smaller than they were, but it was big. We avoided each other completely.”

“We never hung out or really talked socially,” Mike says. “Any communication seemed strategic in nature. In the water it was all business. We did our best to beat the other and at almost any cost.”

One contest in Reunion Island saw GT catch a buzzer-beater to squeeze past Mike into the final, pushing the title race to Pipe. “He gave me the look afterwards and he disappeared, and I didn’t see Mike after that,” GT laughs. Mike, who like Florence is famously laidback on the surface, recalls the title coming down to the Pipe final, where his drive to “smash” GT got the better of him. He failed to hold the Brazilian off a winning wave in the last five minutes.

The pair’s reign of dominance came to an end with GT’s last world title in 2002. Criminally, GT never won a Riptide magazine Peer Poll – a coveted rider-voted award that Mike had on lock for years, even while the Brazilian collected world titles (see: Florence’s five Surfer Poll wins, 2014-18, versus Medina’s zero). Make of that what you will.

Nonetheless, the rivalry pushed the sport to new heights, whether via Mike’s flawless style, poise and classic lines, or GT’s kamikaze approach to waves of consequence. Florence and Medina are clearly having a similar impact.

The tension between Mike and GT thawed with time, but in some ways they’re still competing. They both own bodyboard companies, vying for sales, and live in Hawaii where encounters at Pipe are common. But reverence for one another drips from their responses.

“There’s no hard feelings and it’s more of a friendship,” says GT about Mike today. “Sometimes we text, we call each other. [But] when Mike’s in the water he’s a no friends type of guy. I’m one of the guys who totally respects him though, especially at Pipe because he’s the guy that took Pipe to a different level. I’m always gonna respect him, not just for that, but for lots of things he did for the sport. It still doesn’t feel good seeing him get a good one, and likewise – it’s gonna piss him off watching me get a good barrel. More than anybody else!”

“He’s someone I appreciate and respect so much for what he did for me personally and the sport,” echoes Mike. “And, you know what? He’s actually a really good person.”

The pair even went on their first surf trip together in 2015, albeit without GT signing up for it. Riptide booked them both for what must’ve been an editor’s wet dream, and GT arrived at the airport to discover Mike was on the same flight, on the seat behind him and booked into the bungalow next door.

There was trepidation and competition in the water, but on land they talked openly about life. “We were taking turns getting photos for the mag and it was great… but you know how people treat Mike [laughs]. I watched that and was like, whatever. Pfft! But I love how people put him on a pedestal because it made me even greater, it’s what pushed me the whole rivalry.”

While it’s hard to imagine Medina and Florence going on a surf trip or texting each other now, perhaps the GT and Mike story gives us a glimpse of the surfers’ next 20 years? Whatever it all means, let’s hope there’s no Curren-esque exit from the tour for Florence any time soon. Because if Medina’s anything like GT, he’s in it for the long haul.

“It’s a war,” GT says when I ask what advice he’d give his countryman. “It’s a unique opportunity you’ve got, so by the time you put that lycra on, it’s on. Fight with everything you have.”

// JAKE DEAN

Comments

juanboogie's picture
juanboogie's picture
juanboogie Tuesday, 2 Apr 2019 at 8:03pm

2 great watermen.and 2 very big nutted men.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot Tuesday, 2 Apr 2019 at 9:17pm

I enjoyed that, good stuff

wayneoz's picture
wayneoz's picture
wayneoz Tuesday, 2 Apr 2019 at 10:20pm

Classic parallels. Amazing dominance in their respective fields. Good story

Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68 Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 1:20am

Mike was the man. No one rode deeper on the foam ball in hairy waves back in the day. GT blew minds with his approach to the air, especially at big Pipe. Both are to be fully respected. Great to see Swellnet run with this parallel to the CT. Well played!

belly's picture
belly's picture
belly Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 7:35am

I was on a lid in those days and they were heady days for bodyboarding. I think Ryan Hardy may have cleaned up a few of those Riptide peer polls.

wax-on-danielson's picture
wax-on-danielson's picture
wax-on-danielson Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 8:04am

Even though they are arguably the two best I didn’t know JJ and Medina had a rivalry. I thought the main rivalry in pro surfing was between Medina and Wilson. Back in the heyday Mike Stewart had no rivals, no one else was even at the same level, if someone thought they were Stewart rival in the 90s they were kidding themself.

Chipper's picture
Chipper's picture
Chipper Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 9:14am

How long is Mike's neck!!!

stan1972's picture
stan1972's picture
stan1972 Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 10:28am

Reformed BBer here too! That was great work.

Somehow I don't think John John is going to have the staying power of Mike Stewart. He just doesn't seem to have that edge, and also, he can earn a handsome payday as a freesurfer if he wants. Something not many BBers back in the day could do. They had to compete wherever possible.

ouboet's picture
ouboet's picture
ouboet Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 10:41am

What an engrossing article. Swellnet is becoming one of Aus's foremost online publications IMHO in terms of pure jornalistic quality, lead by most of what the main man writes! I feel in me bones a National Press Club award coming soon.

I grew up a distance form the beach and surfing wan't mainstream. (Stellenbosch, about 50km from Cape Town, a university town dominated sportwise by rugby union, like most of Sout Africa.) My group of buddies clubbing together hassling parents for lifts etc were mostly lids. One of them became SA champ - no mean feat growing up an hours drive from the nearest wave any good for lidding. He was and is one of the most focused people I've ever come across.

Anyway, I absorbed by osmosis there froth about the events depicted here. Now I live in the same town as Ryan Hardy, where there are obviously several other positionally challenged hellmen as well, but I can't get a feel for where bodyboarding's at in terms of global standing (as obviously measured primarily in $$$). I remember my mate lamenting at the height of his career, having done some Hawaii seasons etc, that it hasn't been able to capture the wider public's imagination as an "adrenaline" sport. In terms of turnover/TV coverage etc I'd guess it's been overtaken by many later arrivals, eg kiting and SUPing. Red Bull and Virgin have probably both poured 8 to 9 figure sums into kiting by now - anyone seen the footage of Richard Branson going kiting with Barack Obama on his private island?

Anyone got an idea of the rankings in terms global turnover of board/waveriding sports?

Going off on a tangent about waveriding forms other than traditional surfing, I wonder to myself whether it's accurate to say Laird Hamilton pioneered towing, foiling and SUPing, but hasn't been able to cash in on any long term. I saw a Laird Hamilton SUP board the other day and realized to was probably the first one I saw in a decade. As far as I know, the turnover from SUP related products for several major kite- and windsurfing based brands, has overtaken that from their original products - think Naish, Cabrinha, F1. Laird must have had decent sponsors/endorsements in his heyday (and possibly one of the most coveted woman in the world at the time), but it seems to me like he's been a serial underachiever in terms of obtaining long termg financial gain from his many truly groundbreaking ideas - leaving others to collect the spoils. It don't think there can be any other serious contender for the title of "the person who influenced the act of waveriding most in the past 25 years".

lazydave's picture
lazydave's picture
lazydave Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 11:47am

I hear you on your comments re bodyboarding not taking off. Unfortunately I'm one of the few almost 50 year old bodyboarders in the line up these days. It's always seemed to be a form of wave riding that attracts younger kids that drift out of the sport as they hit their 30s and start to work and earn money. Unlike stand up surfing where most people stick at it into their adulthood, bodyboardings young audience detrimentally impacts spending on brand products that might otherwise be able to pour some money back into the competitive side of the sport. No big deal though from my perspective as it keeps bodyboarding grounded and less commercialised. It also hasn't stopped bodyboarders from driving surfing as a whole forward into the realm of riding giant slabs and aerial manoeuvres that our stand up brethren are now charging forward with. Great article and response!

JackStance's picture
JackStance's picture
JackStance Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 11:21am

Nice work swellnet.

FYI- the D'Bah Pro (for boogin) is on this weekend. With the WSL in town and holey banks everywhere... I wonder if there may be some over lap.

Mike's won 9 world titles, 11 Pipe events, 15 pipeline bodysurfing classic's, in 2009 at age 46 won a pro tour event at Arica and at age 55 is still on the tour.

Avoids sugar, caffeine and drugs, produces his own meat and veges, hydrates and sleeps properly, trains with Paul Chek. Sets a fine example of how to look after the temple.

dewhurst's picture
dewhurst's picture
dewhurst Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 1:48pm

Mike Stewart in two stories on Swellnet! This and bodysurf story.

Bnkref's picture
Bnkref's picture
Bnkref Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 2:08pm

I was a lidder back in the day and my room was covered in Riptide posters with Mike Stewart featuring prominently. Great to see this article. Mike Stewart's longevity is amazing.

Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019 at 10:30pm

Great article Jake! I equally absorbed both surf and booger mags over my teens,twentys and thirtys,booging will be number 1 (I surf religiously too)for me, though there is less and less available on boogers these days,bring on more of these articles on SW!

lazydave's picture
lazydave's picture
lazydave Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 11:37am

Great article. I've been bodyboarding for 35 years and remember this rivalry well. For mine, Tamega was crazy committed, but Mike is in a class of his own from a style and connection to the ocean perspective. If people haven't seen it, check Mike out in the last week (at 55 year's of age) effortlessly charging solid cloudbreak on board and body surfing. Pure flow!

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 12:28pm

Great article Stu compared to the rubbish at Beach Grit, geez they have really lost the plot just zero research and all headlines. Makes the Herald Sun look intelligent reading.

crankitupto11's picture
crankitupto11's picture
crankitupto11 Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 1:20pm

Great article. I have never met GT in person, but I have met MS a few times over the years and have shared a few waves with him in Chile and Portugal. Not only does he have the smoothest lines and style in the biz, but he's also a really nice bloke too! No ego and always happy to have a chat. Pro stand up surfers could learn a lot from both his approach to waves and also his general approach to life.

NewcastleWaterman's picture
NewcastleWaterman's picture
NewcastleWaterman Sunday, 7 Apr 2019 at 2:50pm

Tamega is the man!!!
If he was Australian or Hawaii’n he would be regarded as the best to ever do it.
Mike Stewart always will be the godfather of bodyboarding.
Yesterday I rode my bodyboard, today I rode my SUP and my shortboard.
Great to see swell net covering all wave riding sports.

Theboyhasnoname's picture
Theboyhasnoname's picture
Theboyhasnoname Sunday, 7 Apr 2019 at 6:06pm

Sick. Takes me back to teenage years and good to see coverage of Body Boarding.